I am a committed fan of state education. As the parent of a
16-year-old, I feel my support to be well vindicated by this
summer’s GCSE results. And that is just the bit you can measure.
There’s no computing the benefits of the rich mix of experience you
get at an inner city comprehensive. Or the long-term effects of a
system that tries – imperfectly, I know – to bring together
children from all backgrounds and give them an equal chance.
But the pressures on schools get heavier all the time. After the
Soham tragedy, they must redouble efforts to screen staff properly.
They must comply with the burgeoning flow of government directives
on the curriculum and examination targets. They must identify
children with physical and intellectual disabilities, with
dyslexia, dyspraxia and similar impairments, with refugee status
and with complex language requirements, and bring in specialist
teachers, counsellors and others to meet their needs.
We also look to schools to deal with the effects of dysfunctional
family relations, drugs, under-aged sex, teenage conception,
bullying and violence. We expect them to safeguard and improve
children’s physical health. And attention is now being drawn to the
vital role schools can play in spotting mental health problems –
anything from eating disorders to depression, self-harm and
On top of everything else, they are expected to run their own
affairs, recruit staff and manage significant budgets, with
governing boards made up of parents and others from the “community”
working on a voluntary basis. Staff must watch the pay and
conditions of workers in far less demanding jobs escalate beyond
their wildest dreams. They must fend off tawdry jibes and facile
comparisons with the “independent” sector from smug media
commentators and politicians. And they must keep up their own
morale because demoralised teachers can hardly be expected to
inspire and motivate young people.
The more we ask of schools, the more opportunities they have to
fail and the more vulnerable they are to criticism and even
litigation. One line of argument is that schools are asked to do
too much and should be allowed to focus on what “really matters” –
getting better examination results. But that misses the point.
Children whose individual needs are not addressed in school will be
unable to grasp the opportunities the comprehensive system is
supposed to offer. Even if examination results were all that
mattered, a narrow focus would be self-defeating, because
disadvantaged students would have less chance of improving their
academic results. Schools with a mixed intake would have little
chance of increasing their scores.
So, yes, we do need schools to do all the things we ask of them and
probably much more besides. Because schools are often the best –
and only – places where young people can be helped to overcome the
risks and disadvantages served up to them by family, society,
environment and accident. If they are to rise to the challenge,
however, they need a lot more support than they are getting now.
More money is coming their way, but it is not enough. And money
won’t do the trick on its own. Schools need more training, more
“inset” days for teachers to build their capacity to change and,
above all, they need more connectedness.
In the field of public health, it is increasingly recognised that
health inequalities cannot be addressed by the NHS alone. Statutory
and non-statutory agencies must work together to try to give
everyone a fair chance of good health. It is difficult enough
getting health care organisations to work with social services, or
with local transport, housing and planning departments. But most
difficult is trying to work with schools. Each one is
semi-autonomous and (notwithstanding local education authorities)
has to be contacted separately. They tend to be so overwhelmed that
they can only look inwards. Even the best intentioned, most
energetic teachers have little spare capacity to build bridges to
other organisations. The culture of partnership in the education
sector is very weak.
There are stunning examples of schools that have become the hub of
community life, one-stop shops for education for all ages, for
child care, social care, health care, sports and leisure. Vibrant,
outward looking, open and available to all, these community schools
and colleges have shown good results. Yet they remain isolated –
representing an old idea, outmoded and un-Blairite. As schools are
expected to fulfil an ever wider range of functions, this model
deserves to be brought back into fashion.
Anna Coote is director of public health, The King’s